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Not Utopia… but it’s a start

Sometimes I get tired of hearing so much negativity about education today.

My ideal school would hold the belief that everyone has the potential to learn. It would acknowledge that learning takes place in a variety of ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests. It would make every effort to cater for such diversity in its learners.

At my ideal school, teachers would relinquish control and learners would take more responsibility for their own learning. They’d be encouraged to set goals, reflect, and make responsible choices in their learning and in their lives.

Learners would be encouraged to be thinkers and inquirers. Exploring, questioning and wondering would be celebrated.  Opportunities would be provided for individual and group inquiries into personal areas of interest.

While explicit teaching of skills would be important, the curriculum would be concept driven. Instead of focusing on topics and facts, learning would centre around big ideas like change, perspective or responsibility. Learners would explore powerful, challenging questions and ideas, transferable through time, place and context.

My ideal school would help students develop a strong sense of personal identity, while promoting inter-cultural understanding and being open to diversity. It would aim to develop globally aware young people with a social conscience, who strive to help create a better world.

Creativity and collaboration would be highly valued at my ideal school. Students would be able to express their learning  in creative ways through art, drama or technology. Positive risk taking would be encouraged and opportunities provided to experiment with new and different things in a secure environment, without fear of failure. These would include a variety of sports, exposure to the arts and leadership opportunities.

My ideal school would have a kitchen garden, where students would not only learn about how things grow, but grow all kinds of  fruit and vegetables themselves. They would work together in the kitchen to produce nutritious meals from the produce in the garden.

At my ideal school, teachers would be passionate learners too. Groups would meet voluntarily before school to share best practice, to exchange ideas, to be exposed to new ways of thinking. They would gradually overcome their fears of technology and be willing to experiment with new tools to support and enhance their students’  learning.

Oh, but wait… this is the school at which I already teach!

It’s far from perfect . There’s not consistency yet and we are constantly striving to improve. And yes, certainly in an ideal world, school could look vastly different.  But, given the educational system as it currently stands, I think we’re doing a good job of creating a positive learning environment and preparing our learners for the future.

Maybe education reform can happen, one forward thinking school at a time, one passionate educator at a time…

(I teach at an IB school, in the Primary Years Program)

About whatedsaid

Teaching and Learning Coordinator at an IB PYP school in Melbourne, Australia. I'm a teacher, a learner, an inquirer...


12 thoughts on “Not Utopia… but it’s a start

  1. You are so much more fortunate than 99% of teachers!

    Posted by Roger Neilson | October 11, 2010, 7:48 am
  2. Hi, Edna,
    Your school sounds great…and I wish ours was more like it, but we’re doing some things that are getting teachers thinking and moving along a continuum, so I’m encouraged by that.

    I would add time to my utopian school–time to innovate, time to reflect, time to be creative, much like Google’s 20% they give their employees to be creative. But, then, time is on my mind these days, as I am crunching mine too much!

    So, how does the student goal setting work, in its best form at your school? How about at its worst? How much turnover do you have amongst the adults?

    Thanks for sharing.


    Posted by Paula White | October 11, 2010, 7:53 am
    • You’re so right, Paula. If only we had more time! On the one hand, it sometimes feels like one day a week with no students would be great :).. when teachers could plan collaboratively, reflect, learn together and just catch up! On the other hand there’s never enough class time either…

      We don’t have a high turnover of staff. While there are always some teachers who come and go, some staff have been there more than 20 years. A mix of young and old(er) teachers, long-serving and fresh blood is ideal, I think. Taking on the IB PYProgram has made a huge difference… clear guidelines, a common language, excellent philosophy, whole school approach. Most teachers who have worked in PYP schools say they could never work in any other kind again.

      Goal setting is still a challenge for many. We developed a learning journal (more than a daily diary) which the students use for recording home tasks, reflections and goals. It’s used more effectively in some classes than others, so this is one of our whole school goals for next year (2011.. our school year starts in Jan) to develop teacher and student understandings of goal setting and work on improving this area still further.

      Posted by whatedsaid | October 13, 2010, 3:19 am
  3. I really agree with you Edna, that is the kind of place I want to work at, and have worked at twice in my career which I suppose counts me as extremely fortunate.

    I think these kinds of schools happen in certain circumstances and it should be our job to nurture these circumstances.

    1. People who know what they are doing are running the school; whether it is an effective administrator or a team of teachers.

    2. The school has the freedom to make decisions about how the education process should be run rather than being constrained by needless bureaucracy.

    3. Educators in the building work for the benefit of the children first; not their parents, not the school board, not the administrators and not themselves.

    What I love about my current school is that I can really see that every adult is fully committed to our mission and works extremely hard. It makes me want to work harder seeing how hard working my colleagues are.

    Posted by dwees | October 11, 2010, 8:43 am
    • I agree! Especially with that last paragraph. The challenge is to create that kind of culture in a school. Once it’s the prevailing culture, everyone wants to be part of it or else they leave. But how does one create that culture to start with??

      Posted by whatedsaid | October 13, 2010, 3:22 am
  4. Folks, Here are a set of schools, IN THE UNITED STATES no less, that really are about exactly what Edna is describing. Do we all know Dennis Littky, Elliot Washor, The Met and their Big Picture Schools?

    Click to access big-picture-brochure.pdf

    With huge money from the Gates Foundation, there are now over 60 Big Picture Schools in the US. What do we think?

    The interesting piece here are the overlaps between these schools, Edna’s post, and Carlo’s ideas about what unschoolers want for their own children’s education. Big Picture is now focused on challenging some of the prevailing ideas about what education should do in children’s lives, as laid out in the current discourse around educational improvement.

    A tipping point here?

    I wonder if

    Posted by Kirsten | October 11, 2010, 9:42 am
  5. Avalon School in St. Paul is much like this, too! I encourage you to read about it, here, in this new case study by Charles Kerchner. Teachers run the school, and in that role do many of the things you describe!

    Can teachers run their own schools? Tales from the islands of teacher cooperatives. By Charles Kerchner

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | October 11, 2010, 10:06 am
  6. I should add that you can learn more about the Teacher Professional Partnership opportunity at

    We keep a set of links to news and research here as well:

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | October 11, 2010, 10:13 am
  7. When “the last ding dong of doom has clanged,” I hope that schools are indistinguishable from communities, that the two bleed into one another and value their shared civic and economic lifeblood in a symbiosis of mentorship and apprenticeship. I hope that schools are hubs of human networks of art, education, entrepreneurship, and service. I hope the community comes to learn at the school and that students go to learn in the community. I hope they have strong economic ties and sell to one another and trade in-kind between one another. I hope that schools and communities don’t keep one another out.

    I think schools of all types need to find ways to be indispensable to their communities so that the work schools do to benefit their communities is reciprocated by the work communities do to keep schools open and staffed to offer more than test prep.

    I want schools envisioned to allow communities to achieve visions of their own.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 11, 2010, 2:49 pm
  8. Kim, Your links to the Avalon School and Education/Evolving are great! Thank you. I’ve just sent them over to my colleagues at IDEA, and hope we get to know you more.


    Posted by Kirsten | October 14, 2010, 9:52 am
  9. Thank you Kirsten. Likewise!

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | October 15, 2010, 9:25 am
  10. amazing post..! really makes me think of all that we have and sometimes take for granted and everything that we still need to push for in our ongoing growth path…

    Posted by Maru | October 26, 2010, 4:07 pm

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